Columbia University to Join $20 Million NSF Research Institute to Accelerate AI Discovery

In partnership with the University of Washington and Harvard, the new AI Institute for Dynamic Systems will focus on developing new machine learning ideas and techniques.

Jul 29 2021
AI Institute

The U.S. National Science Foundation today announced the creation of a $20 million artificial intelligence research institute led by faculty from the University of Washington (UW), Columbia Engineering, and Harvard University.

The new institute, the AI Institute for Dynamic Systems, will focus on developing new machine learning ideas and techniques, with Columbia’s team exploring new ways to use AI to integrate physics-based modeling to accelerate scientific discovery.

“For decades, scientists and engineers have toiled to accelerate AI development.,” said Prof. Hod Lipson, who co-leads the Columbia effort. “Now AI will return the favor by helping accelerate scientific discovery itself.”

The AI Institute is one of 11 new NSF-funded centers that are part of a larger $220 million investment in AI and AI-enabled research. The Institute’s goal is to integrate AI and machine learning with physics-based models to tackle some of the biggest challenges in science and engineering, such as materials discovery. The Columbia team wants to use AI to help scientists and engineers speed up their work. “Businesses use AI primarily for prediction; scientists use AI for gaining insight,” says Lipson. “There is a limit to what we can understand with our naked brain. Once we can use AI to amplify discovery, however, all bets are off.”

“There is tremendous potential for AI within the scientific process: helping scientists to choose what and how to measure, discovering new relationships in measured data, and understanding and explaining these discoveries,” said Prof. John Wright, co-leader of Columbia’s effort.

Scientific discovery is one part of the Institute’s mission; it will also focus on developing more powerful AI tools to do this work, including the use of AI to build better AI. “Engineers like to invent systems to solve problems. We are now faced with the ultimate challenge: Can we create a system that can itself invent solutions automatically?” Lipson notes. “If we can find a way to do so, the leverage would be huge.”

Hod Lipson

Hod Lipson, James and Sally Scapa Prof. of Innovation in the Department of Mechanical Engineering

John Wright

John Wright, associate professor of electrical engineering

Engineers like to invent systems to solve problems. We are now faced with the ultimate challenge: Can we create a system that can itself invent solutions automatically?

Hod Lipson
Co-lead, AI Institute for Dynamic Systems

The Institute will also focus on training future researchers in AI techniques. Examples include partnering with high school programs that focus on AI-related projects and recruiting and preparing recent college graduates from underrepresented groups, U.S. veterans and first-generation college students to go on for a graduate degree.

"The institute will provide massive open-source educational materials that include lectures, data and code packages for advancing and empowering AI," said Nathan Kutz, the UW institute director. Lipson added, “AI is being integrated into every industry and every discipline. It doesn’t matter if you are interested in journalism, nursing, or nutrition. From retail to real estate, AI is going be a part of every industry’s future, and everyone needs to be prepared.”

The institute is also partnering with several regional institutions — the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, Montana State University, the University of Nevada Reno, Boise State University, the University of Alaska Anchorage and Portland State University.

"We are so excited to bring together a critical mass of amazing and innovative researchers from across the U.S. to really move the needle in developing machine learning technology for physical and engineering dynamic systems," said Steve Brunton, the UW co-lead. "We also have a deep connection with industry partners, such as Boeing, which provides us with an incredible opportunity to make sure that we are focused on important and relevant problems and that our technology will actually be used."

"I am delighted to announce the establishment of new NSF National AI Research Institutes as we look to expand into all 50 states," said Sethuraman Panchanathan, the National Science Foundation director. "These institutes are hubs for academia, industry and government to accelerate discovery and innovation in AI. Inspiring talent and ideas everywhere in this important area will lead to new capabilities that improve our lives from medicine to entertainment to transportation and cybersecurity and position us in the vanguard of competitiveness and prosperity."

The AI Institute for Dynamic Systems is partially funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.